UEFA World Cup Qualifying 2014 Playoffs: Full Draw and Analysis of Crucial Ties
Matches are often built up to be bigger than they actually are, but for the World Cup playoffs, no injection of hype is needed.
With eight European teams still in contention and four of the continent's 13 spots in Brazil waiting to be filled, the playoff ties, which take place on November 15 and 19, promise to be special.
Ahead of Monday’s draw, you would have been excused for being unable to recognise the seeded pot from the unseeded one.
According to Reuters via The Guardian, the French were up in arms about their position in the unseeded group, but the controversial ranking system resulted in some enticing matchups.
The blockbuster tie between Portugal and Sweden sees two of the world’s best players—Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic—face off in national colours, while France take on the Ukraine in a repeat of last year’s European Championship game, in which the French prevailed 2-0.
Elsewhere, Iceland, who are looking to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time, take on a Croatian side whose poor finish in Group A cost manager Igor Stimac his job.
Greece, who conceded just four goals in qualifying, and Romania round out the draw.
Below is a breakdown of the two most interesting ties.
Portugal vs. Sweden
Sweden manager Erik Hamren told FIFA.com that the battle between Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic will be like "a match in a match" after his side was drawn to play Portugal in the World Cup playoffs.
The Nordic nation qualified from Group C with 20 points, eight behind leaders Germany. A loss to Austria was the only black mark during their qualifying campaign, but the manager should take confidence from the fact his side managed to score seven in their two legs against Germany, even if they did only come away with a point for their troubles.
Who will win this playoff?
Sweden may not have the same personnel as Portugal have at their disposal, but they are a solid and organised unit with their star man Ibrahimovic providing the sprinkle of magic in the attacking third that so many other teams crave.
Portuguese manager Paulo Bento boasts strength throughout his squad. Along with Ronaldo, there is Fabio Coentrao, Nani, Pepe, Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho and Helder Postiga, who netted six times in qualifying.
Despite their individual talents, however, Portugal have often struggled to perform as a cohesive unit. Draws home and away to Israel were their undoing in Group F as they finished one point behind Russia.
Key to Bento will be the performance of his talisman Ronaldo in both legs.
The Real Madrid man scored four goals in qualifying, but three of them came in the one match against Northern Ireland. Two consistent performances from Ronaldo will be key to Portugal progressing.
Bento told FIFA.com that although his side faces a difficult challenge, he is convinced they will qualify.
While Portugal rarely make things easy for themselves, they should have the personnel to see them through.
The first tie will take place in the Iberian Peninsula on November 15 before the return leg at Friends Arena in Stockholm four days later.
France vs. Ukraine
Despite being the unseeded nation, France will be expected to come through their two legs against Ukraine.
The last time the two countries met was at Euro 2012 when France prevailed 2-0 in a match that was briefly suspended due to the bad weather in Donetsk.
Who will qualify for the 2014 World Cup?
French manager Didier Deschamps will likely be delighted that his side avoided Portugal, but he knows that a trip to the Ukraine will be no easy task.
The former World Cup winner told FIFA.com: "They are unbeaten for seven games, they don’t concede a lot of goals, and it will be a long trip for us, but playing the second leg at home is a good thing for us."
The French went relatively unchallenged for the second spot in Group I, which had one less team than each of the other groups.
One point from their two matches against Spain dented their hopes for the top spot, and with little in the way of a threat elsewhere in the group, it is difficult to judge their form heading into the playoffs.
Ukraine, who conceded just four goals throughout qualifying, finished one point behind England in Group H. Mikhail Fomenko’s side scored an impressive 28 goals—nine more than France, although Les Bleus did play two fewer games.
While Ukraine can take comfort from France’s last World Cup playoff outing—when they were almost ousted by Ireland before that now infamous Thierry Henry handball—France will be extremely confident of their chances against a team that has lost all three of their previous World Cup playoff contests, according to the FIFA website.
With experienced campaigners like Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, the 2006 runners-up should come through the tricky tie.
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